New documents related to a traffic jam planned by a member of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) staff show for the first time how furiously Christie’s lieutenants inside the Port Authority worked to orchestrate a coverup after traffic mayhem engulfed Fort Lee last year.
Inside the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Christie’s top appointees neglected furious complaints from Fort Lee’s police chief as well as from angry rush-hour commuters. One woman called asking why the agency was “playing God with people’s jobs.”
The Republican governor’s appointees instructed subordinates to stonewall reporters who were asking questions. They even ordered up an actual “traffic study” to chronicle the impact and examine whether closing the lanes permanently might improve traffic flow. The study’s conclusion: “TBD.”
The newly released e-mails do not appear to implicate Christie directly, but they shed new light on the lane closures that rocked the political world this week and threaten the likely Republican presidential candidate’s political future.
A cursory review of hundreds of pages of e-mails and internal documents released Friday afternoon show that:
- After concerns were raised, Bill Baroni, a now-former top Christie appointee on the Port Authority, told his colleague Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), that there should be "be no public discourse" about the situation. Foye responded incredulously, saying, "Bill that’s precisely the problem: there has been no public discourse on this." Foye added that the "fiasco" needed to be fixed.
- Once the media were on the case, Baroni repeatedly asked a spokesman for the Port Authority, Steve Coleman, to ignore media requests and/or not comment.
- Fort Lee, N.J., Mayor Mark Sokolich (D) informed the Port Authority on Sept. 10 -- the day after the lane closures took effect -- that emergency responders in one case were forced to abandon their vehicle and respond to a call "on foot" due to traffic.
In the days and weeks to come, inquiries from elected officials were neglected and questions from reporters were unanswered. The newly released e-mails show that a turf battle took over between Christie’s appointees and Foye and others installed by Cuomo, whose suspicions were growing.
According to the documents, after four straight days of lane closures, Foye, the Port Authority’s executive director and an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), e-mailed senior Port Authority officials to say he was “appalled” by the “dangers created to the public interest.” Foye said he believed the “hasty and ill-advised decision” may have violated federal and state law and ordered the lanes reopened immediately
Twenty minutes later, at 8:04 a.m., traffic was restored to all three lanes, and Fort Lee’s week-long nightmare was over.
Foye asked other officials how they would “get word out” to the public. “We are going to fix this fiasco,” Foye wrote.
That's when Baroni, another top Christie appointee, balked. “There can be no public discourse,” Baroni wrote Foye.
“Bill that’s precisely the problem: there has been no public discourse on this,” Foye responded.
In an emotional news conference on Thursday, Christie apologized repeatedly and said he had fired a deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, who earlier-released e-mails show was a key architect of the lane closures plot. He also banished Bill Stepien, his closest political adviser and campaign manager, for his role in the episode.
On Friday, the chairman of the New Jersey Assembly's transportation committee, John Wisniewski (D), said the documents raise fresh questions about the scandal for Christie. Wisniewski zeroed in on a meeting between Christie (R) and the Port Authority chairman one week before the traffic jam, raising concerns about why information about the meeting was included in the subpoenaed documents. He also questioned the number of senior staff members involved in "spin control" once the story broke.
Here is his full statement:
“As with so much else we’ve discovered during this investigation, these documents raise many more questions. It’s obvious that senior members of the governor’s staff were involved in spin control once this story broke.
“Given everything we’ve seen and heard, there are two glaring questions that exist right now.
“How much of the full picture was the governor’s senior staff given regarding the development of this lane closure project? With the tight control this administration maintains, it doesn’t stretch the imagination that they were given more information than they let on. When they were preparing spin control, how could they not have been given the whole story?
“Secondly, the documents submitted by David Wildstein and his attorney are documents they deemed specifically related to the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge as per our subpoena request. Included in these documents is a reference to what appears to be a meeting between Port Authority Chairman David Samson and the governor one week before Bridget Kelly issued the order to cause ‘traffic problems’ in Fort Lee. By submitting these documents, Mr. Wildstein is telling us they are related to the lane closures in some way. The question that demands answering is how?
“These are just two of the many answers we will be seeking in the days and weeks ahead.”